Allison Janney Didn’t Think She’d Get To Do A Movie Like ‘Lou:’ “I Never Thought It Would Happen”

Allison Janney never thought she’d get the chance to be an action hero. The Oscar-winner’s career has spanned a wide range of genres, from the politically savvy, fast-talking CJ Cregg on the NBC drama The West Wing to the dysfunctional former alcoholic Bonnie Plunkett on the CBS sitcom Mom. (Both roles won her Emmys.) And of course, she took home the Academy Award for her role as the gritty, abusive mother to Tonya Harding in I,Tonya.

But despite all that, the actor, now 62, figured the lid was pretty much shut on any roles that involved beating up henchmen and wielding big guns. “It’s a genre I’ve always wanted to play in, and never had the opportunity to,” Janney told Decider in a recent interview. “As a woman over 60, I never thought it would happen.”

Then along came Lou, a movie in which Janney single-handedly takes down two men using nothing but a soup can and some sick martial arts moves. Directed by Anna Foerster, with a screenplay by Maggie Cohn and Jack Stanley, Janney stars as the titular character, an ex-CIA agent living a quiet, remote life. Or at least, she was, until her neighbor’s (Jurnee Smollet) daughter is kidnapped by her unstable father, and the two women team up to him track down.

Shot over two months in the Canadian wilderness, Lou is Janney like you’ve never seen her before. The actor spoke to Decider about her rigorous training regimen, action roles for older women in Hollywood, and Lou‘s unconventional portrayal of motherhood.

Warning: This interview contains spoilers for Lou on Netflix.

Allison Janney in Lou
Photo: Liane Hentscher / Netflix © 2022

Decider: You were so impressive in those fight scenes. What made you want to take on an action role like this, which is so outside of what we’re used to seeing you in?

Alison Janney:  It’s a genre I’ve always wanted to play in, and never had the opportunity to. As a woman over 60, I never thought it would happen. Then this script came my way, from J.J. Abrams at Bad Robot, I met with the director Anna Foerster, and we really talked cold turkey about what this was going to entail. Anna said, “It’s going to be dark and dirty and wet. It’s not going to be easy. Are you willing to go to these places?” And I said, “Yeah, absolutely. I’m terrified, but I want to and I know I’m up for the challenge.”  I’m a woman who comes from a very athletic background. Sports, ice skating, gun shooting, and skeet shooting—little things that I felt didn’t make me a professional, but did make me ready to take on a challenge like this.

What was the training process like?

I met with Daniel Bernhardt, who was the fight choreographer. He was so passionate about what he does, it was exciting to me. It threw me off a little bit when he told me I’d have to work out three hours a day! I’d only ever worked out for an hour at a time—I never go over an hour. I was like, “Alright, I’m getting paid for this. It’s a job. I’m going to work out for three hours a day. I just have to wrap my mind around it, and go do it.”

Once I started doing it, I loved it. I loved learning this whole new body language. It was new movements—working out with him in different ways every day. He never kept it the same, so it never got boring. I was boxing. I was doing exercises to strengthen my thighs, and to keep my movements sharp. We would work with a bunch of other guys that he would get there to fight with me, and he’d film me and show me what I look like. I thought it was fascinating, the whole process of getting ready to do something like this. And when we finally got to the day we filmed it, I felt it was so in my muscle memory. I was so prepared. I’ve never been more prepared to do anything in a movie in my life! I felt that he kept me very safe, and I felt very powerful, very empowered by learning this. I want to do more. I want to learn more martial arts and other combat forms.

Allison Janney in Lou
Photo: Liane Hentscher/NETFLIX

It is common to see older men starring in action movies, even into their 70s and 80s, but much rarer for women. Would you like to see more roles like Lou for older women? What needs to change to make this happen?

Yeah, I would. I think people like J.J. Abrams and Hannah Minghella who seek out projects like this that are female-centric, they’re making a difference in Hollywood. Giving this to me at 61 is a huge thing to happen. I want there to be more. I want there to be more for me, too! [Laughs.] It’s just something that you can’t discount—a woman of a certain age being able to take care of herself, to be strong and powerful, to be someone not to be messed with. It’s a nice thing to see. And it’s nice to see a story told about Jurnee Smollet’s character, Hannah, to have her be a strong, resilient woman also. She’s coming from a completely different path in life, but they’re thrown together in this extraordinary circumstance, and they get through it together. I love the story of these two women. I’m trying not to say too much because you know, spoilers.

[Spoiler warning: Skip the next two questions if you haven’t yet seen the movie!]

Speaking of spoilers, I did want to ask about the motherhood aspect if you’re willing to go there. Your character feels like a very transgressive portrayal of a mother.

One of the best lines for Lou’s character is when she says, “Not everyone’s meant to be a mother.” I love it because it’s so true. Not everyone is meant to be a mother. Not everyone should be forced into being a mother. It’s a great thing to do with your life, but you shouldn’t be shamed or made to feel that you have to be one. Obviously, Lou has regrets about what happened with her role as a mother and the choices she made. I think she thinks was making the best choice she could to protect her son. It didn’t work out so well, as most things didn’t in her life.

I know you’ve spoken openly in the past about your decision not to have children. Lou is obviously in a very different situation. But did you find a personal connection with the character in that way?

Yeah, I did, because I could see being in a situation where something happened and it was a mistake or something. Because of her work, she couldn’t change the course of what was happening to her, physically. So she did what she could to take care of the child, but it was never her intention to be a mother. She did what she could to make sure her child was taken care of but, obviously, it wasn’t enough. But, yeah definitely, because I never had the instinct to have children ever in my life. I feel like I would’ve if I did, but it was just never an instinct I had. I wanted to have a lot of dogs, and a lot of friends. I get to be a cool aunt and that’s really fun. By the way, that dog in the movie was fantastic.

I was going to say, you did have a very good boy in this movie.

Excellent dog. He’s much better trained than any of my dogs. I had four at the current time [of filming]. I mean Jax was just incredible. The most beautiful dog, well-behaved. Lovely.

I know it’s been a couple of years, but I loved seeing you play CJ again in the West Wing reunion special. What was it like to return to that character and reunite with that cast?

Oh my god, that cast! We’re still all — we’re on a big text chain together. I love that group. They’re family to me. Getting together with them again to do that thing was just heaven. It was just wonderful. I love those actors so much. We went through a lot together.

Would you ever do it again? I know Aaron Sorkin would have to be convinced to do another reunion…

I don’t think he would. But we all would leap at the chance to do anything with each other. We do a lot of things to help political candidates that we’re trying to help. We do a lot of fun game things to get people to come to watch, donate, and support candidates that we believe in. So that’s great that we get to do that.

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